Creative dissertation financing (in both senses)

I have scoured the Foundation Center databases and library, and I assure you that no one (as of this writing) offers a grant for a doctoral student over the age of 40 (a supposed liability based on outmoded assumptions) to hang around beaches and write poetry (no matter how noble the project or qualified the poet).

The Muse willing, I am about five months away from being ABD. Because I chose to attend a state R1 university during the most brutal economic downturn since the Great Depression, I’ve had to hone my financial survival skills. Like many other graduate students, I’ve been fortunate enough to earn my tuition (and some of my bills) through teaching undergraduate classes part-time. Unlike many other graduate students, especially at the doctoral level, I haven’t been as fortunate in securing research funding for my own work.

The problem is not any flaw in the project itself. The problem is that I am studying poetry in a culture which sees poetry as a hobby at best and as a break with reality at worst. This culture openly applauds hostility to the systematic study of any humanities or art. This culture lionizes the professional dilettante. This culture parrots McCarthy-era scripts, in which professors are “eggheads” and students “dupes,” and fancies it has said something original. This culture believes that pseudo-intellectual attention-seekers like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, who rely on ghostwriters, are “authors.” But I digress.

As one of the “optional” duties our financially-strapped department has assigned graduate teaching assistants, I tutor students who want help with their writing. Some of these are graduate students in other disciplines. I help them fine-tune their research grant proposals and job dossiers.

There’s no small irony here.

I think of my partner, who once traveled the world and held diplomatic clearance and now works part-time as a medical interpreter, but who cannot get the same coverage her workmen’s-comp clients get because her at-will employer doesn’t offer health insurance. I help graduate students in the “STEM” disciplines write funding proposals for their own research, at the cost of my own research time and energy. QuikTrip managers make more than we do, possibly combined. Together, we are living in a Dickensian novel, pressing our cold noses against the glass and watching other people eat–sometimes not in only the metaphorical sense, given two part-time incomes between us.

* * *

As for my work, my research, my reading, my writing, my poetry, I feel as if I am carrying the dissertation, wrapped in a threadbare sheet, while forging head-down against a bitterly howling snowstorm:

“You missed our mandatory meeting!”
“Please get the (makework) in by (date).”
“Have you graded my paper yet?”
“My friends and I wrote a sestina a day for a week and self-published an anthology!”
“Your poetry isn’t _____ enough!”
“A chapbook isn’t a real book!”
“You don’t publish enough!”
“Is that self-published?”
“You don’t schmooze enough!”
“How are you going to pay your bills?”
“Can you help me with something?”
“What are you going to do with a Ph.D. in… poetry?!”

The winds are whipping and my fingers and toes are numb. But I clutch my idea more tightly against my chest and forge ahead. The work itself drives me. The weather changes. The grail does not.

* * *

Therefore, travel light and trust your compass. If one path proves treacherous, find another. If you find none, make a way. Blaze a fresh trail through the undergrowth. Read the signs–a snapped twig, a print in the mud–and track silently. One needs provisions for the journey. A packing list:

1. Set up a donation site. Explain precisely what your dissertation research involves and why you need outside funding. In exchange, offer acknowledgement in the manuscript and a copy of the future book itself. Keep good records and follow through. Also consider alternative funding sources like prosper.com, but be aware that repayments begin immediately and that interest rates may be significantly higher than those on your existing credit card, depending on your financial snapshot at any given time.

2. Clear the credit cards whenever possible and check your credit rating regularly. Use them as The Spike Lee School of Arts Funding has taught you, not as speculative investments. It’s tough finding any leftovers in that student loan check, especially because it covers basic living expenses and conference travel during grad school, but try to earmark at least some part of it for your research budget.

3. Do as much of your dissertation research as possible within driving distance of your home. If this relegates you to weekends and breaks in some cases, plan to hit as many of these, as efficiently as possible, on one trip. Leverage conference travel by building in solo time at any suitable archive, museum, historic site, natural landmark, or interviewee’s house. Skip the drunkfests and use that hotel room as a short-term writer’s retreat.

4. For more distant locations, try to double up during a Study Abroad trip. Seek out graduate-level programs whenever possible–and remember to look outside your university. While in country, make quick notes of impressions that can’t be imagined or researched. Take photos to jog your memory. Talk to people who share a passion for your research topic. Make genuine contacts (not just ugly-American po-bizzy ones) with poets and writers. Be aware that poetry is serious business in many other countries. You might bring a few extra copies of your work to give as gifts.

5. Volunteer. While the words “unpaid internship” may make a dissertator’s flesh crawl, search out opportunities at agencies and organizations that lend themselves to your project and see if you can negotiate a mutually agreeable arrangement. Use your work time to learn more about your dissertation subject and your free time to write. Another alternative is to seek out a suitable volunteer-abroad program. You will have to foot the cost of your travel, but it’s often less costly and more schedule-friendly than figuring out who’s going to watch your house, car, and dog for a year.

6. Act locally. If your project has an inglorious local component, make a date to investigate that dull little thing which no one notices. Make them notice it. Make it your writing exercise. Show how it’s part of the larger, more exotic project you’re doing. Find another. And another.

Creative funding is a necessity for the creative dissertation. The fact is, our country does not support doctoral-level poetry research. For decades, our leaders have chanted the mantra of “greater funding for science, technology, engineering, and math,” pouring more and more money into that research while ignoring or cutting even the most modest arts funding.

Yet I persist. Before I became a graduate student, I wrote for a living. My words put food on my table, a roof over my head, and a decent amount of money in the bank. I was nimble, brazen, and fearless. Then I decided to go to grad school. Graduate study tends to beat what is broadly termed “personality” out of its apprentices.

For artists–especially for poets–the real test is escaping with these qualities intact. They are what distinguish poets from people who studied poetry. Turn those skills to your advantage and figure out how to write for a living. I’m not talking about writing grants–or, God forbid, ghostwriting–for other people, although those are options. I’m not talking about whether or not to apply for teaching jobs, return to Corporate America, or join a monastery, assuming any of these will have you. I’m talking about following your writing where it takes you. I’m talking about the Buddhist concept of right livelihood. Trust the writing. It will make a way, one poem at a time. The funding project is the compass for the dissertation. The dissertation is the compass for the book. The book is the compass for whatever comes next.

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5 thoughts on “Creative dissertation financing (in both senses)

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Robin Kemp and Another Poet, Robin Kemp. Robin Kemp said: Financing the creative dissertation: http://t.co/vsh2liq at Every Poet Needs A Patio #phd #poetry #gradschool #writing #advice […]

  2. christine says:

    You have lots of interesting links in this article, Robin. The QuickTrip salaries surprised me. I’m glad they can make a living wage, but still… .

    I hope all your investigative work will pay off for you, both in your writing and in your dissertation. If This Pagan Heaven is a sign of what’s to come, the world has a big treat in store.

  3. Robin Kemp says:

    Thanks, Christine. I was scandalized when I saw the manager’s salary advertised in QuikTrip’s front window. They offer excellent benefits, too, from what I hear. If only we valued higher education as much as we do prompt Freezoni transactions…

    Thanks also for your kind words about the book. Your support means a lot!

  4. Erica says:

    My wise husband sAys you should send this piece in to “the nation”. Do it!

    • robinkemp says:

      Your wise husband is very kind. The premise of this blog is that it’s 100% rough drafts. I would have to revise quite a bit first before serving it up to a news editor!

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